Million Dollar Year
By John Haas
“One million dollars,” a voice said.
Kevin Connelly glanced up from his beer, startled. Absorbed as he was in his own thoughts, and doodling designs in the tabletop’s beer condensation, he hadn’t seen the old man ease into the seat across from him. “Who…?” No, Kevin recognized this guy. The old man had been a fixture in the bar for weeks, sitting at the counter with a beer he never seemed to finish. He was old, bordering on ancient. Wrinkled, liver-splotched skin covered shaking hands. One eye was milky white and his mouth missed several teeth. How had someone this noticeable snuck up on him? Kevin gave his head a shake, focussing instead on what the old guy had said. “What about it?”
“Would you give a year of your life for one million dollars?”
Kevin considered his life: married to the perfect woman, four amazing kids, a crowded home and an ever increasing mountain of debt which threatened to bury him alive. Every month they spent more money than was brought home, and that was with his overtime pay and Sophie’s amazing budgeting skills. “Hell, yeah.” Kevin answered, smiling. “An interesting question, isn’t it, mister Connelly?” The man leaned forward, sleeves of his threadbare trench coat pressing against the table. “What if someone could actually do it?” Kevin chuckled, thinking that would be a neat trick. The door to the bar opened, tinkling the tiny bell and grabbing Kevin’s attention momentarily. His buddy Alan sauntered in and Kevin gave a wave before returning his attention to the other man. “How did you know my name…? But he was talking to himself. The old man was gone and nowhere to be seen in the bar. “Lose something?” Alan asked. “No, I… Nope. Never mind.”
“Already forgotten.” Alan said, heading for the bar to get the next round. Kevin scanned the bar again then shook his head and returned to the beer in front of him. One year for a million dollars? Yeah, he would make that trade in a heartbeat. Two beers later—Alan’s treat—he returned home feeling somewhat better, but that good feeling ebbed as his house came into sight. It broke his heart. He wanted to be excited to come home but instead he saw something smaller than what they needed and bigger than they could afford. Kevin forced himself forward and through the front door. “I’m home Sophie.” Sophie came to the door between kitchen and hallway and smiled at him. “The kids are in bed. You can blow them kisses when you go up.” Kevin nodded, pulling his shoes off at the door. “Did you eat?”
“Some peanuts at the bar.” He said, wandering after her into the kitchen. “Oh Kevin, you should eat something while you’re out. It’s only once a week.” Both of them knew he wouldn’t do it. He never ate out, not even at work, because that was a luxury they couldn’t afford. The brief time with Alan once a week was the one extra he allowed himself, and only then because Alan picked up the tab for the second and third beers. Sophie pulled a plate out of the oven. She knew him well enough and Kevin smiled at the meat and potatoes waiting for him. She did wonders with hamburger and had a hundred recipes for potatoes, rice and pasta. Cheap food. Sophie sat across from him at the kitchen table while he ate his dinner. He glanced at her expression. “Uh-oh, what is it?”
“I’m sorry Kevin, I should let you eat in peace.”
Kevin kept chewing but the taste became bland in his mouth. “It’s okay love, give me the bad news.” It was about money. Of course it was. It was always about money. He and Sophie didn’t argue or fight, they just worried together. “We went to the dentist today.” An inward groan. He’d forgotten about the dentist. Still, he was confident that his benefits would cover most of whatever came up. His work may not pay enough but they did have a good benefits program. “Cal needs braces.” Unless it was braces of course. “His teeth don’t look that bad.” Sophie stared at him across the table, a wry smile at the corner of her mouth.
“Yeah, okay.” Kevin agreed. “He needs braces. How much?”
“Dr. Carlo says we can space the payments over two years.” Sophie didn’t hesitate. “Almost five thousand.” Five thousand? It might as well be a million dollars. A million dollars…? Why did that sound familiar? “You’re smiling?” Kevin laughed. “Remembering something I was asked at the bar tonight.”
“Share it. I could use a smile too.”
“Well, just before Alan showed up this weird old guy asked if I would give a year of my life for a million dollars.” Sophie didn’t smile. “What did you answer?”
“I believe the words I used were—Hell, yeah.” Sophie shook her head. “Not worth it.”
“I know. One of my years isn’t worth more than forty thou these days.”
“You’re worth more to our family than money, Kevin.”
Kevin shrugged. “Maybe so, but we need money too.” She got up from the table and stalked over to the sink. He followed.
“Hey, it’s just a—what do you call it—a hypothetical question. Why are you mad?”
“Because the idea that you would leave us for money makes me mad.”
“I wouldn’t leave you for money…” Sophie rounded on him, poking her finger into his chest. “No? What if it was real? What if this guy could have given you the money right there? Would you have taken it?”
“Yes, I would have taken it.” Kevin found his voice rising. “Cal needs braces and we need to get ahead on everything from mortgage to credit cards. If a genie popped out of a bottle I’d use all three wishes to ask for money.”
“That’s different. You’re not giving the genie anything.”
“Look, trading a year of my life for a million bucks would make sense. So, I die at the age of, I don’t know, eighty instead of eighty-one. So what?”
“Oh yeah? And what if you only had a year left?”
“I… Okay, I hadn’t thought of that. In that case though all the more reason to make sure you and the kids would be okay when I’m gone. If I died a year from now, what would happen? We have no life insurance. You’d lose the house for sure. I would gladly trade that year to stop it from happening.” Sophie shook her head and turned toward the sink, starting to wash the dishes. How had they gone from talking about braces to arguing about this? They never argued. What was this really about? Well, if he died then she would be alone… Oops, yeah. There it was. The thought of losing Sophie would get him angry too.
“Let’s not argue about fantastic situations, Sophie,” he said, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “If we’re going to argue, there are so many more relevant and immediate topics to choose from.” Sophie gave a short laugh and the tension broke. “Like braces?” Kevin laughed too. “No. We don’t have much choice on the braces, but we’re going to have to find somewhere to cut back.”
“We could stop eating once a week. Every Wednesday could be fasting day.”
“Hmmm, got anything less drastic?”
Sophie hesitated, “I could get a job, at night.” It was a tempting idea, a bit too much. “Sophie, you’re already doing bookkeeping for like five clients at night. Can you really take on more? You need to sleep too if you’re gonna be with the kids all day.” Kevin could tell she was looking for a way around the old familiar dilemma. They were still two years away from the twins being in school and Sophie returning to work full time. Still, they could use that extra income. “I could get another job.” He said. “At night.”
“No,” Sophie shook her head with a firmness that didn’t invite debate, “you need to be rested for your job or you could get hurt.” Kevin examined his rough hands resting on the counter for a full minute before realizing that Sophie was also quiet. He looked into her eyes, forcing a smile onto his face. “Don’t worry love, we’ll be okay.”
All day, putting up sheet after sheet of drywall, his mind returned to the idea of selling a year of his life. At first it was only a pleasing mental diversion—since they couldn’t afford lottery tickets he had to get his money dreams elsewhere. By the time he returned to the bar the following week that idea had taken up a firm home inside his head. Kevin looked deep into his beer, waiting for Alan. When the old man plopped into the seat across from him again, Kevin jumped. “When did you come in?” Kevin asked.
“You’ve been thinking about it, haven’t you?”
“Quite the intellectual exercise you gave me there.”
“Not just an intellectual exercise,” the old man said. Kevin chuckled. “Oh yeah? So you know someone who will pay a million dollars for a year of life?”
“Indeed. I would.” Kevin would have left, but it was a crowded night and this was his booth. If anyone was leaving it would be this man. “Listen…”
“No. You listen,” The old man said with gentleness. Still, there was a strength at the core of those words and Kevin felt his mouth snap shut. “Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant. I can take the year and I can pay the money.” Kevin shook his head, unable to pull his eyes away. An image of Sophie and the kids flashed through his mind. He wished this were true. “You believe,” The man said. “I don’t know what I believe, but I know what I know. I know I have more debt than I can handle, and I’m about to get more. I know I can’t declare bankruptcy because we would lose the house. I know that a million dollars would change everything. I also know that if this is just some weird joke then I’m no further behind than when I sat down. I don’t know if I believe you can do what you say, but if you have a million dollars in your pocket I’m willing to humor you.” The old man nodded without a trace of a smile. “You believe.”
The old man drew out a large sized mason jar from his long black coat. It was clean, not a fingerprint or blemish on the glass of it and the lid shone golden in the light. The man unscrewed the top of the jar and set it on the table. Kevin watched this spectacle in silence.
Next the man pulled a briefcase off the seat beside him and pushed it across the table toward Kevin. Where had that come from? Kevin’s brow furrowed as he took the thing and opened it. Inside was more money than he’d ever seen. Stack after stack of neatly collected bills, all hundreds. His heart beat so fast he could feel it against his chest. Choosing one stack at random he flipped through it to see that each bill was indeed a hundred, then he did the same with two more stacks. Kevin returned the bills to the briefcase and closed it. His eyes scanned the bar to ensure no one was paying attention. The old man picked up the jar, holding it by the bottom in his claw-like grip. He placed the back of this hand against the scarred wood of the bar table.
Kevin couldn’t convince himself this was just an intellectual exercise any more. He had the money and was certain this man could take payment. For a brief moment he wanted to run, but that briefcase wouldn’t let him. “What do I do?”
“Put your hand on top of the jar, palm down.” Kevin hesitated, his hand hovering above the jar, a question on his mind. “Why me?” The man held his eyes on Kevin and answered without hesitation. “You’re young and healthy with a long life ahead of you.”
Kevin’s breath came out in a long sigh. So he did have a long life coming. Sophie’s argument that he might have only one year left had plagued his mind until he had become sure of it. He slapped his hand down on top of the jar. The cool glass under his hand felt nice, inviting, but it didn’t take long for him to feel foolish. He tried to pull his hand away but it wouldn’t move. The jar edge warmed and the inside glowed, at first with dim yellowish light, then with an intensity too bright for his eyes. A sensation of being pulled on came to him, but Kevin couldn’t say what part of him was being pulled.
Why doesn’t anyone else notice?
The brightness eased off and Kevin was able to pull his hand back. A pinkish ring circled his palm where it had pressed against the jar, not at all the scorch mark he had expected. His body was weak, fatigued, like he had exercised long and hard. The man put his hand over the mouth of the jar. “Satisfied?” Had he really just sold a year of his life? Would he be able to demand it back? His mind, then his eyes returned to the briefcase, sure that it would be gone, but it still lay next to him. The fingers of his right hand curled around the handle so tight the knuckles turned white. He nodded, yes, he was satisfied. Across from him the man uncovered the jar and brought it to his lips. He drank the glowing air inside, tipping his head back until the jar was once again an empty glass container. Kevin felt sick watching the man feed, knowing that some part of him was the meal.
The man’s skin smoothed as some of the wrinkles disappeared. His hair took on some lustre. He was still old, though less frail now. A rough pink tongue darted out and around his lips. “I also chose you,” the man continued “ because you’re happy, well adjusted, smart. No disease. Good physical condition. All around nice guy.”
“You taste better.” The man expanded. “Oh.” The man stood, returning the jar to his deep pocket. “Also, you are the type of person who would not only believe the deal but would agree to it. More rare than you might think.”
“I don’t know why.” Kevin rested his hand on the briefcase. “A million dollars for a year off the end of my life is well worth it.”
“The end of your life?” The man said. “I never said that. Why would I want a year off the end, when you are old and used up?”
“No, I like the younger years, when you are still tasty.”
Kevin felt a tingling along his spine. “What year did I sell you?”
The man shrugged. “Who can tell that sort of thing?”
“But without that year, I’ll…”
Kevin grabbed the briefcase and when he looked back the old man was gone again. He gripped the handle in his fist and got to his feet. As he raced out of the bar he prayed he would have enough time to get the money home to Sophie.
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